Monday, January 20, 2014

The Last Banquet

Jonathan Grimwood 

The Last Banquet is an intriguing novel. Its canvas is both broad and singularly personal. Jonathan Grimwood's take on pre-revolutionary France is a fascinating, ambitious and altogether brilliant exploration of a unique period in France's history, viewed through the eyes and told from the perspective of a minor noble who starts life in a dung heap and finishes it as master of a sweeping estate and castle in the south of France, one that also doubles as the retirement home of a range of exotic animals no longer fit for life at the Palace of Versailles. The book tells the story of all that comes to pass in between.

Grimwood has written a historical novel that does an exceptional job at not actually reading like a historical novel. A deft illustration, caricature and—at times—skewering of the norms and social customs of France during a period of perverse inequity, brutal injustice and ridiculous class distinctions, it neither lectures or passes judgement. Above all, however, The Last Banquet is a story of life, love, friendship and, particularly, food. Taste is a sensory sub-narrative that weaves through the book, tangential and yet essential to the overall structure. From the sweetness of dung beetles to the richness of roquefort to the fresh sweat at the edge of his first love's neckline, there is no taste left unexplored and unsavoured.

Without question, The Last Banquet is my favourite book so far this year. It is a richly drawn tale of what it means to be human, and to make choices, and to succeed and fail—to live and die—by those choices. But it is a singularly human tale, one that draws you in and doesn't let you go until the absolute and inexorable conclusion. Grimwood's characters are deftly drawn, his dialogue is exceptional and his story telling is superlative. It is Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words, as written by Joanne Harris. And worth the read because of it.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).

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